The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ABBA THEONAS - All Holy Persons Confess Themselves as Unclean and Sinners

St. John Cassian's book, The Conferences, is well-known to readers of our newsletter. It, along with The Institutes, is a classic to which we will return from time to time as it is chock-full of centuries-old monastic wisdom from the Egyptian Desert that is still useful in today's modern world. In today's conference with Abba Theonas, a man of whom we know virtually nothing beyond the text of his writings, we will look at the issue of sinlessness.


-- Therefore all those who are holy are struck with compunction because of the weakness of their constitution, and with daily sighs they scrutinize their different thoughts and the hidden and secret places of their conscience, humbly crying out: "Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living shall be justified." And this: "Who will boast of having a chaste heart? Or who will have confidence that he is pure of sin?" And again: "There is no one who is righteous upon the earth, who does what is good and does not sin." And also this: "Who understands his sins?"

-- They consider the righteousness of human beings so weak and imperfect and constantly in need of God's mercy that one of them, whose iniquities and sins God cleansed with the fiery coal of his word that was sent from his altar, said after having contemplated God in wondrous fashion and after having seen the lofty seraphim and a revelation of the heavenly mysteries: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips."

-- In my estimation he would perhaps not even then have felt the uncleanness of his lips if he had not deserved to know the true and integral purity of perfection, thanks to his having contemplated God. Upon seeing him he immediately recognized an uncleanness that had hitherto been unknown to him. For when he says: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips," he shows by what follows -- "and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips" -- that he was speaking of his own lips and not of the people's uncleanness.

-- In vain, then, does your penetrating and thorny objection -- when you said shortly before that if no one is sinless then no one is holy, and that if no one is holy then no one will be saved -- pose a problem for a most evident truth. For the difficulty in this question can be resolved from the text of the prophet where he says: "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned." That is, when you turned away from the pride and heedlessness of our hearts and deprived us of your help, the abyss of our sins immediately engulfed us. It was as if someone had said to the sun in all its splendor: Behold, you have set, and at once thick darkness has covered us over.

-- And yet, although he says that the holy have sinned, and not only that they have sinned but they have always remained in their sins, he does not utterly despair of salvation, but he adds: "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved."

-- I shall compare these words -- "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned" -- with those of the Apostle: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Again, what the prophet adds -- "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved" -- corresponds to the words of the Apostle that follows: "The grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- Likewise, what the same prophet also says -- "Woe is me, for I am a man with unclean lips" -- also seems to smack of the aforementioned words: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Similarly, what follows in the prophet -- "Behold, one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand there was a coal (or a stone), which he had brought from the altar with a tongs. And he touched my mouth and said: Behold, I have touched your lips, and your iniquity shall be removed and your sinfulness shall be cleansed" -- is like what seems to be uttered by the mouth of Paul, when he says: "The grace of God, though Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- You see, then, how all the holy truthfully confess themselves sinners not in the person of the people but in their own. Yet they are not at all hopeless about their salvation; rather, thanks to the grace and mercy of the Lord, they presume upon the complete justification that they despair of being able to attain due to the condition of their human frailty." END

from St. John Cassian, The Conferences, (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 808 - 810